Thirty years ago last month, I attended my first rave. It was called O3, it took place at Long Beach Convention Center in Los Angeles, and it featured a headlining set from 808 State. The exact date was September 14, 1991. It was a Saturday, of course. I was 20 years old and had just started my junior year of film school at the University of Southern California.
It’s amazing how little evidence of this party there is online. I could only find the flyer, and a live recording of one of the DJ sets, by Mr. Kool-Aid. I couldn’t find any photos or videos, or any other written accounts other than brief comments on that mix. It’s not really surprising, given that it took place pre-internet and pre-mobile phone; but I’d hoped that since 808 State is such a big name from that era that there might have been more documentation of their first U.S. tour. Nada.
So I’m afraid people won’t even believe me when I tell them what a magical, all-time vibe it was; that the mixing styles and and dance styles and fashions were distinctly different from what was the norm at raves just six months later; that the incredible light show featured laser fish floating in a laser sea — an effect I’d never seen before and have never seen since; or that an unbilled Björk performed on a couple of tracks with 808. Y’all might just assume I hallucinated all that. I think one reason I’m trying to get all this down in a post is so that I won’t doubt it myself one of these days.
A lot of people are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Nevermind this week. It’s strange to look back on, because I remember what a huge deal it was like it was last month, but it just didn’t affect me like it did so many others of my generation. And that’s for a specific reason.
This isn’t to dismiss Nirvana at all. I’ve never been a major fan, but I had a lot of affection for them and still do. I was devastated by Cobain’s suicide. And I understood and approved of their sudden, shocking transformation of the pop music world and youth culture.
Not to flex but I saw it coming. The “Seattle sound” (as we called grunge before Nevermind) was massive for me in the three years prior. My favorite Seattle bands were Soundgarden and Mudhoney and I wore out my cassette tapes of their early albums and EPs, starting with Soundgarden’s debut LP Ultramega OK in early 1989, when I was still in high school. I knew this was the future of rock; I knew these bands — along with Jane’s Addiction, the Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, and other faves from that time — were going to be absolutely massive. Nirvana was a bit secondary for me, along with Tad and Mother Love Bone and a few other Seattle bands, but I still dug them (I especially liked “Mr. Moustache,” from Bleach, which my best friend put on a mixtape for me). I regret never seeing them live.
I remember having a Nevermind listening session at that same friend’s apartment the day it dropped, and I thought it was a great album. If my life had progressed along the same track, that would have been my future along with everyone else’s.
But timing is everything. My capacity to be blown away by Nevermind was completely short-circuited by attending my first rave and having my life changed by techno — literally overnight — 10 days before it was released. That was my epochal moment, my paradigm shift. I’ve never even owned a copy of Nevermind, because I decided on the morning after I got home from that rave that I wouldn’t be buying any more music with guitars in it. That proved not to be true, but the change in me was still profound.
It wasn’t long before I wasn’t even buying albums anymore because I was too busy collecting 12-inch dance singles, and with a few exceptions I wasn’t going out to see bands anymore, I was partying in dusty warehouses and, eventually, DJing myself.
Thirty years — it’s really strange to type that. The reason that a rave in an ugly convention center in Long Beach was such an impactful and transformative, even apocalyptic moment in my life is because it was so futuristic, and seemed to shatter conventional notions of history and linear time along with many other boundaries. So it’s disorienting and painful to realize that there’s now as much distance between that party and the present day as there was between that party and 1961. Are early-90s raves really as outdated and quaint as pre-Beatles rock and roll was then?
This is why I’m suspicious of rave nostalgia. Rave was always about something new for me, and still is. Most of the time, even in my old age, I’m more interested in checking out new techno or house than old rave records, because I still crave that rush of discovering the new. I just can’t get with old ravers who complain about new music or how young people party these days (so much bitching and moaning about phones on the dancefloor!) and who spend all their time living in the past.
I say all this and here’s a long article about my first rave! So of course I’m not immune to that nostalgia, as much as I guard against it.
At the same time, it’s undeniably true that the first explosion of rave was a really special time, and it’s worth looking back on for reasons besides nostalgia. A new music culture was created in those years between roughly 1985 and 1992. This culture sprang up because of a confluence of musical evolution, technology, and economic and social conditions in the 1980s. (And designer drugs too — can’t forget those.)
The three decades since have been a process of expanding and exploring that culture — and passing it on to younger generations — rather than moving beyond it. Under neoliberal capitalism, in the age of the internet, time isn’t measured the same way it used to be; this is why the one-to-one tape-measure reckoning back to 1961 isn’t quite right. Like I said in a previous post about Gillian Welch and neotraditional country, it’s as if time is curved instead of linear now. Listen to the records made by Richie Hawtin or the Aphex Twin or Larry Heard in 1991 and they still sound like the future. This is why young people still go apeshit for the techno and house (and hip hop, and alt-rock) of that era, far more than we would have for Buddy Holly or even Motown (as much as I love both). You don’t have to trash new music to recognize that. For young people, it’s kind of all the same anyway, because of that curvature of the timeline. They can access both new and old music with the press of a button now, and have the best of both.
At some point, something as explosively new as rave was back then will come along, but until then this is the future we have.
It may sound grandiose or overly dramatic to talk about one night changing everything like this, but it happens. To name an example reported by others, take the mythic first Sex Pistols gig in Manchester in 1976, which is depicted in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People — one of my very favorite films, and as it happens one of the few to capture the rave experience with reasonable accuracy. As portrayed by Steve Coogan, broadcaster and punk impresario Tony Wilson talks about how everyone in the room had their life forever changed by that Pistols gig within the space of a few sloppily played songs — including the members of Joy Division, who went on to radically alter the music landscape themselves.
However wildly exaggerated such accounts may seem, I can only nod in understanding, because it happened to me.
By the end of the summer of 1991, and the start of my junior year, I was primed and ready to attend my first rave. I just didn’t know how to actually find one.
I had recently become obsessed with the sound of Madchester — the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and the Charlatans, among others. Most other bands sounded boring compared to their expansive, funky indie-dance hybrids. I had also been getting more and more into the house and techno that was being released on major labels or played on MTV — Deee-Lite, Beats International, Meat Beat Manifesto, and 808 State themselves, to name a few. To me, this stuff went hand in hand with the hip hop I had devoured since high school — machine music made by a rebellious new generation that was turning the music world upside down.
I had also read all about acid house and the rave explosion in the UK and the Summers of Love. I instinctively craved this in my life, to the point that it had even affected my fashion — I had already started wearing baggy jeans and colorful striped shirts, like the Manchester bands and their raver fans that I saw in magazines and videos. But I had little idea of where to begin looking in L.A.
In August, two friends and I had travelled hours to a rave at a theme park in Orange County — my friend had picked up the flyer, which was just a simple culture jam of the Nike logo that said RAVE, in a Melrose clothing shop. But the party had seemed really boring — a random DJ playing fairly commercial house at an outdoor roller rink, with no one dancing — and we’d left early in disappointment. So we’d come to the wrong conclusion that there was not much of a rave scene in Southern California. It’s comical to compare that very basic nonstarter of a rave party to the mindbending epic wonderland that was O3, which happened about a month later.
It was a chance encounter while working at the USC library in early September that started it all for me. These two guys came up to the desk where I was working and asked me about my Happy Mondays T-shirt. I hadn’t met many other people who’d even heard of the Mondays, so I sensed kindred spirits. We chatted about music for a while, then they asked me if I’d been to any rave parties. Trying to play it cool and conceal my excitement, I told them I’d been looking. It turned out they’d been going to warehouse raves in L.A. for a few months, and also that they had a spare ticket to the 808 State party in Long Beach that Saturday night.
I swear if it was a scene in a film by Danny Boyle or Cameron Crowe, with these two guys wearing baggy overalls and Doc Martens approaching this gangly awkward dreadlocked kid and going, “Hey, so do you go to raves man?” you would think it was too corny. But that’s exactly how it went down.
In the early stages of a scene you feel like you’re part of an underground cult exchanging secret signs about life and death and the meaning of existence. I’m sure it was that way for the Beats, the flower children and the first punk rockers too.
Saturday night came, I hitched a ride down to Long Beach with these guys I didn’t even know, as if it was some kind of pilgrimage, and six hours later my life was utterly changed.
What to say about this party that won’t make me sound like some kind of ravey-davey burnout? It was so epic and special. I don’t know how to communicate that in words if you’ve never experienced something like it.
Here are a few excerpts from an article I wrote about it a few years ago for the now-defunct inthemix:
It’s impossible for me to adequately describe how revolutionary and how necessary it all seemed – just like it would be hard for someone older to explain how meaningful rock and roll was when it first exploded in the 1950s.
Whereas punk and hip hop were defined by their stance against society, here it seemed society was left behind or never even considered. It felt post-apocalyptic.
It was the way most of the 3000 people were dancing together, instead of facing the stage or milling about with a beer (hardly anyone was drinking of course). It was the ecstatic, communal, largely peaceful vibe — as opposed to the posturing, the predefined behaviours, the dating games you’d get at a regular club or live gig.
It was the sense of discovery – not only visual discovery, like the way the Intellabeams and fog and blacklights seemed as much a part of it all as the sound; but also the way the space contained within the prosaic walls of the convention center formed its own world, filled with infinite possibilities.
Above all it was the music. I’d heard techno and house on record and on the radio, I’d heard DJs playing industrial and postpunk-dance stuff in clubs, and I’d heard live electronic bands. But none of that prepared me for the way it all came together in the hands of the DJs that night — the crazy collage of beats, synth sounds and endless samples emanating from the huge speaker stacks.
The way it chopped and pureéd together every kind of music you could think of – disco, hip hop, classic rock, soul, new wave, pop, TV soundtracks. The way the bass was so dominant and intense. The sustained excitement, the hands in the air, the disco calls, the feeling of ongoing celebration and way, way too much fun.
The way the whole thing seemed like a satirical pisstake with comic alarm calls like “No sex before marriage!” and “James Brown is dead!” echoing through the vast room, with the crowd chanting along.
Most importantly, it was the way the dancers were just as integral to the whole experience as the artists, if not more so (I don’t even remember seeing the DJ booth). No cult of personality, no standing around waiting for a cue to get into it – you had to get in there and move your body or you might as well go home. The collective energy was the whole point. It was like a vision of true anarchy, true unity, complete with funky beats.
One of the things I realized that night was that music could be disposable and still mean the world. At the end of the day it was really more about the impact it had on the crowd, and me. The non-stop mixing and the anything-goes aesthetic represented complete liberation — liberation from the lame conventions of live music, from a music industry defined by product and hierarchies, from cultural barriers, from linear logic, from music that took itself too seriously. I felt like I’d skipped forward through decades of music history in six hours. And if you think about where we are today, I guess I had.
If there’s one thing I left out of those breathless decriptions, it’s color. The colors left such an impression on me. There were bright colors in every corner, every square inch of the convention hall: the rainbow colors of the Intellabeams and lasers, the black-lit fluorescent glowsticks and body paint (smileys and daisys, of course), the colorful striped clothing and hi-vis gear so many of the dancers were wearing, the psychedelic art at the various stalls, the blizzard of trippy flyers for upcoming parties.
The profusion of color had cultural as well as aesthetic appeal to me. I wanted more color in my life. Color in terms of aesthetics, but also in a more abstract sense — color meaning brightness, vivaciousness, fun, psychedelia, and diversity. The music at this party, with its whirlwind of cutup styles and samples and references, its saturation of synthesized melody, its explosive multiculturalism, its machine funk and techno soul, seemed to be the aural representation of all that color. And vice versa! It was all such a contrast to the drabness that (fairly or not) defined a lot of alternative rock and grunge at the time.
At the same time, rave psychedelica wasn’t hippie-ish — not yet anyway. It was very modern, urban, hard-edged, sarcastic, tech-savvy — cyberpunk if you will. It was heavily influenced by hip hop and graffiti as well as contemporary art and pop culture. It was our fuck-you to the boring aesthetics of the mainstream, but also a response to the 60s, which we considered tired and flabby and co-opted by that point (in some ways we pioneered the “ok boomer” attitude). To me, the acid-house smiley face (which I adopted as a totem starting that night) was in part ironic — though there was a lot of genuine smiling going on, of course.
By the way, I’ve made the arbitrary decision that discussing MDMA is outside the purview of this article. It would just become a completely different article if I tried to get into that. I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that O3 wouldn’t have changed my life without ecstasy — in the years prior to this, live gigs by Ministry and Jane’s Addiction, to name two examples, blew my young mind wide open and changed me forever, and I was completely sober at both of those. And in the years since, there have been many times I’ve raved sober, or on just a few beers, and had some really incredible experiences. Since I was diagnosed with autism two years ago, I have more understanding about how loud music, pounding rhythm, and other intense sensory experiences have always had a profound affect on me. I haven’t done ecstasy in 25 years and it just isn’t important to me anymore.
At the same time, it was definitely a factor that night. It’s hard to sort out the boundary between its euphoric influence on my perceptions, and the external factors: the music (a radically new kind of music for me), the massive soundsystem, the crowd (interacting in a way I’d never experienced), and the lights and everything else.
I spent most of O3 alone. The guys I came with went off on their own tangent and we didn’t interact very much at the party itself, except to smile at each other from time to time on the dancefloor. I bumped into a couple of other friends unexpectedly, but most of the time was spent exploring on my own and just getting lost in the music.
Everything about O3 was new to me — the music and the way it was mixed, the intensity of the sound, the decentered way the crowd engaged with the music. So I didn’t realize at first that it was a watershed event on the L.A. rave scene in terms of profile. For a newcomer like me, there was a sense of astonishment at the scale. Who are all these ravers? Where did they come from? How did they know about this scene?
For a couple of years before that, the nascent Southern California underground scene had been defined by events of, at most, a few hundred people in illegal warehouses and featuring local DJs. There had been a couple of larger outdoor events that summer (which had names like Under the Paw Paw Patch and which were spoken of in legendary terms in later years), but O3 took things to another level. It was a big, fairly commercial event in a civic space with an international headliner and 3000 people in attendance. The tickets were available on Ticketmaster! Quite the contrast to the usual complicated routine of gaining access to underground parties, which protected them from the cops. You dialled a voicemail number, which you got off the back of a flyer, for directions to a map point (often in a storefront at some strip mall in the middle of nowhere), then you paid cash at the map point to some stranger, who handed you a photocopied map with cryptic directions to the illegal warehouse. As I type this I can’t believe we did this stuff — it was so shady, but it was so fun too.
So O3 represented a breakthrough for raves in L.A. and in the U.S. in general. I’m sure the people who were partying in lofts and warehouses in downtown L.A. in 1989 might have thought it was a sellout – just like I felt the same way about bigger events when I became a jaded veteran in later years. But everyone has to start somewhere and if O3 hadn’t been so big I might not have heard of it, so I’m really grateful.
O3 also featured some of the things that came to define kiddie raves in the 90s — glowsticks, whistles, Dr. Seuss hats, a moon bounce. Encountering all that for the first time that night, I thought it was so much fun. It all seemed so cheeky and rebellious, embracing childish things in such a subversive setting. The psychology of that childish aspect of 90s rave culture — from cartoons on the flyers to the striped shirts and baggy overalls that made everyone look like an overgrown toddler, to the actual use of pacifiers at a certain point — again, that could be the subject of an entirely separate article. Later on in the 90s we tried so hard to be grownup clubbers and to distance ourselves from all the kiddie stuff.
But those kiddie things weren’t as prevalent at O3 as they would soon become. And in general, the fashion was much more chill than it would have been even a few months later. There were lots of baggy jeans and t-shirts and Osh Kosh overalls, but in general they were baggy in a relaxed and comfortable way — a style I associated with the UK rave scene, and which is still one of my favorite styles.
(By the way, the UK scene was a huge and direct influence on L.A. raves; a number of veteran UK DJs and promoters emigrated in the late 80s and 90s and “seeded” rave culture in the U.S., and here in Australia too. One of them was Michael Cook, who played at O3.)
So there wasn’t nearly as much of the cartoonishly baggy style that is unfortunately now synonymous with raves. The point of baggy clothes (or “Loose Fit” as the Happy Mondays put it), along with sneakers and other athletic gear — as opposed to dressing up to go out — was to be comfortable so that you could dance all night in a dirty warehouse. It was practical and utilitarian as well as cool. The ridiculously sagging jeans and platform sneakers and so on that were seen in later years couldn’t have been that comfy!
Many O3 attendees weren’t baggy at all. Many were dressed in a more normie way, with typical 90s mainstream fashions, and there were goths, hippies, and grungy alternative rockers in the mix.
Others wore work gear — such as painters’ coveralls — as rave wear. That repurposing of proletarian gear seemed so fitting given the social and economic context of rave parties taking place in abandoned warehouses, and it looked comfortable as hell too. I missed that in later years when the candy rave trend took over.
This is why I cherish the memory of this party: it happened just before rave culture became codified, with certain expectations about fashion and behavior. Before street labels like Jive and Clobber started churning out purpose-made rave gear; before rave fashion turned into a uniform, with jeans of a certain cut, branded T-shirts and everyone wearing the same style of beanie and the same Pumas. This same-samey look is how I remember L.A. raves as early as the summer of 1992. It’s amazing how quickly things changed and congealed.
O3 was so much more open and so much less rigidly defined. Again, I would characterize it as 3000 people coming together not as a defined subculture, but to discover something. It felt radically open and free. I’m sure a lot of that feeling was my own naivety, but it was definitely a transitional moment for the scene.
This radical openness and sense of discovery also applied to the music. O3 took place before the underground music played at raves became so fragmented into subgenres. Just a few months later there were parties dedicated only to hardcore (before it morphed into jungle). Within two years we already had separate scenes for jungle, progressive house, trance, and on and on. The music at O3 represented that glorious moment when rave mixing was eclectic and experimental and unpredictable (and often rough by today’s standards), encompassing Detroit techno, UK, Belgian and Dutch hardcore and New York and Chicago house, as well as industrial, new wave, disco and so much more.
As big and relatively commercial as it was, the vibe at O3 was intense. First of all, as far as I recall, it was just a good production, with great sound and lighting, and a quality international headliner, from the mighty Manchester scene no less. Most importantly, the young L.A. scene (and the worldwide rave scene in general) was just starting to crest a wave, and the music was in a golden age.
These were the DJs who played that night: Mr. Kool-Aid, Michael Cook, Steve LeClair and Destructo. I had never heard of them, and with the exception of Destructo, who became a big name in EDM in later years, I still couldn’t tell you what they looked like. As I said, I didn’t even know where they were in the room that night. It didn’t matter who was actually playing the music and that’s what was so great about the experience. It’s such a contrast to the scene today, which is much more focused on the individual DJs and their set times and their personal brands — with all the ego that comes with that.
A few years ago, when I was writing that article I linked to above, I found Mr. Kool-Aid’s live set from that night. I listened to a couple minutes of it, but then I had to turn it off. It was too jarring and it was ruining my dreamlike memories. Some things are best left as you recollect them in your mind.
(In the thread at that live set linked above, several commenters talk about being at O3 and how amazing it was — I know I didn’t imagine it! Several also mention that Steve Kool-Aid was never known for his mixing ability, but he was apparently a great guy and deserves props as a scene pioneer.)
If you want a better idea of the vibe as I remember it, check out the below Doc Martin mixtape from 1991. Doc didn’t play that night, but he was one of the lords of the L.A. rave scene at the time, and he played at many other parties I was at in ensuing months. He’s still at it and he’s still one of my favorite DJs. I got this mixtape a few weeks after attending O3; it says everything about the energy and adventurousness of that era of rave, and more than any other piece of recorded music, it made me want to become a DJ.
Let’s face it, some of the rave music from back then is really cheesy! Basically the EDM of its day. I can’t stand “James Brown Is Dead,” to name a notorious example. Like many DJs of my generation, I spent years afterwards distancing myself from rave music as I was pursuing what I considered the true path — deep house, garage, and soulful techno. That Belgian hoover sound was so dated even two years later.
But in my old age, I’ve learned to take it easy on my younger self, and now I think a lot of early-90s rave music really holds up. I mean, it goes without saying that early classics by Frank de Wulf, CJ Bolland, Moby and Joey Beltram absolutely slap. But even some of the cheesier classics, such as the Prodigy’s “Charly” and Human Resource’s “Dominator,” have their place in my heart.
I’m not the only one: in recent years, more and more young producers, DJs and partygoers have embraced this era. There’s been quite a renaissance of that high-energy, melody-saturated, hyperkinetic rave style in the work of producers like SCNTST, Bicep, Lone, Helena Hauff, Mall Grab — many of whom weren’t born yet when O3 took place!
Here’s my Spotify playlist of rave classics from that specific era of late 1991 (a playlist from mid or late 1992 would sound completely different, that’s how quickly the music was evolving then):
Going over tracks for this playlist, I was reminded that, as underdeveloped, busy and sometimes cheesy as it was, early-90s rave music was way more funky and soulful than later iterations of rave music such as happy hardcore and progressive trance. And as much as I love deep house and more minimal techno, they can be really formulaic, and I get tired of them. The joyous energy of the best rave music is such a great antidote to that fatigue.
Back to O3: 808 State’s live PA was amazing. They were so ahead of their time — real innovators with their elegant, jazzy techno, so much more layered and complex than most rave music of the era. Though they were heavily influenced by Detroit techno, they deserve mention with Detroit greats like Juan Atkins and Robert Hood; and they’re up there with Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin and others whose music transcends the genre.
But even so, on that night they seemed very secondary to the vibe of the party. They seemed too much like a band, and I had already decided within a few minutes of arriving at the party that I was no longer interested in bands, or facing a stage, or waiting between songs.
Still, that set contained one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had on a night out: the moment that Björk appeared out of a pink cloud to sing “Ooops,” like some vision of a goddess blessing the whole gathering. Ooops, all right, I’ll come over! I was peaking so hard that I wasn’t sure whether I was really seeing her or just dreaming — but I’ve had it confirmed from friends who were there that, indeed Björk was in the building that night. Also I just found the below video (shot in Manchester on the same tour), which confirms the pink stage lighting they were using for that number, and also confirms that Björk is just the coolest ever.
I want to say something about the politics of raves. In that older article of mine quoted above, I said that the feeling of O3 was like “true anarchy.” That was a naive impression. I felt that way because of how raves broke down the bullshit of the music industry — the separation between performer and audience, the emphasis on corporate product — and in a larger sense broke down cultural barriers and brought people together for subversive fun, euphoria and harmony. Which was legitimately beautiful and something to celebrate.
What I couldn’t have understood at the time was that this was a business too, however rough-and-tumble it was in those years; and that the rave and club scene would, inevitably, soon create its own hierarchies and its own commodification. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Beyond that, I’m not into rave utopianism anymore. Countercultural movements such as raves can be places of joy, inspiration, therapy, and more, but I no longer think they really challenge the power of the system — they’re not truly “revolutionary” in that sense. You think like that, you end up being one of those people who say things like “positive vibes only” and who shun the kind of revolutionary politics that can change the world. The mentality of a lot of the party scene is escapist. Escapism can be a valid response to the kind of social collapse we’re experiencing, but it’s important to recognize it for what it is. At its worst, this rave utopianism actually reinforces capitalist hierarchies.
But at the same time, you can’t deny that there is a political dimension to raves. This was especially true back then. Young people all over the world suddenly started coming together by the hundreds or thousands to do illegal drugs in illegal spaces — abandoned urban spaces that they transformed themselves into places of color and beauty — and dance to loud, non-commercial music. It’s amazing how quickly the underground movement swept the world, given there was almost no encouragement from the music industry or the mainstream media. There were social and economic reasons for this, and that means it was political. In my retrospective review of Trainspotting (also for inthemix, RIP) I wrote that “the world that made raves necessary [was] a world of brutal economic competition and uncertainty, a world that emptied inner-city warehouses of their commercial use and gave young people nothing else to do but party in them.”
The system’s reaction was police repression and moral panic in the media — a culture war that raged for years. I can’t tell you how many parties I was at that were busted up by LAPD. In New York, the city government under Rudy Giuliani effectively outlawed dancing in clubs. In the UK the war became national when Parliament infamously cracked down on raves with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Clearly, the ruling class in many places felt threatened by raves, and that says something.
Raves were also multicultural and inclusive — in L.A., especially because of the huge numbers of Latin ravers — and that added a further element of rebellion against the racist, sexist, homophobic establishment. Raves may not have challenged systemic oppression in any lasting way but they certainly encouraged lots of young people, including me, to question and overcome those cultural barriers.
This is what Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream says about the party scene in the UK in that era:
One way of reading acid house is that it was political in the sense that it did bring people together — even if they were being brought together through chemical means. Thatcher — her aim was to atomise society, break everybody else, to destroy community, make everybody on their own, selfish, suspicious, and paranoid of everybody else. Acid house was the opposite of that, it was about bringing people together, making them creative, making them feel valued and worth something. And it was democratic, because when you go and see a rock band, the star is the guy onstage or the girl onstage. When you went to the acid house club, the stars were the kids on the dancefloor.
It’s a good summary of what I was sensing that night. Was it some kind of protest, or was it just dropping out? Both can be true I think.
O3 took place six months after the bloody imperialist nightmare of the first Gulf war. It’s a long story but seeing 100,000 lives viciously snuffed out by history’s most advanced and fearsome military in order to protect U.S. oil interests horrified me to the point that I felt like giving up caring about anything. I clearly remember thinking on that night, in the euphoria of it all, that this party — which had so radically transformed this concrete and glass convention center into something warm and inviting and safe, and had similarly transformed every person inside it — itself constituted some sort of protest against the kind of society that could do such a thing.
If that’s true, like I said, I don’t think it’s enough anymore. But I think I understand better than ever the social forces and the alienation that led me — and thousands of others there that night, and millions of others around the world in that era — to come to the same conclusion.
I can never forget the feeling I had when I got back to my apartment at seven the next morning, exhausted but intensely happy, with the technotronic sounds I’d been exposed to still ringing in my ears, vibrating in my bone marrow. I looked at the rack of cassette tapes hanging on the wall of my bedroom in the painfully bright L.A. sunshine. Scanning the titles, I could already tell, with a mixture of sadness and the righteous euphoria of a new convert, that some of the music in my collection would never be played again — because it wasn’t future enough, wasn’t funky enough, wasn’t fun enough, because it just didn’t have that thing. There was no going back; this was my life now.
Among the victims of this purge were Soundgarden, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Ministry, all huge influences in the years before that.
(Another reason I love 24 Hour Party People: it depicts this very same thing. After that Sex Pistols gig, Tony Wilson and his mates go back to his place for the afters; his partner Alan proceeds to ceremoniously tear all the band posters off the wall, because their old musical heroes suddenly no longer matter in the wake of punk. Only the David Bowie poster survives the purge.)
Obviously I softened in later years — I got back into bands eventually and rediscovered the joy of rock. But still, in that moment and for a long time after, funk rock, grunge and punk all seemed like the distant past.
Did O3 point the way to the future? Yes and no. On the one hand, despite all the upheavals it’s gone through in the digital age, popular music is more than ever focused on celebrities and commodification. The decentered, egalitarian, underground nature of rave music didn’t become the norm like I hoped it would.
On the other hand, electronic music itself has completely taken over the mainstream, from hip hop and R&B to soundtrack music. And we are definitely now living in a world dominated by bedroom producers and DIY artists, from Billie Eilish to Lil Nas X, in no small part thanks to the bedroom pioneers of house and techno.
I don’t even have time to get into how much rave fashion and design influenced the mainstream. From the late 90s onwards, everything from album covers to movie posters to corporate ads began looking like rave flyers (which in many cases were pastiches of corporate ads in the first place — funny how that works). The bright colors and digital mashups and irony of rave design are now an integral part of our visual world — perhaps the most conspicuous sign of the enduring legacy of this magnificent epoch, even as it recedes into the past.
Note: What I’ve written here is how I remember things. It was my first rave, I was very naive, and I never met any of the promoters or DJs or other movers and shakers on the scene. I moved to New York in mid-1993, after college, and I lost touch with the rave scene in L.A. The New York rave and club scene is the one I became more intimate with, meeting big promoters and DJs and eventually playing out and throwing parties myself. So just to let you know, if you’re more familiar with the L.A. scene from back then and I have any of these details wrong, leave a comment and let me know!
Feature image photo credit: Michael Tullburg. This photo is from 1997, and you can tell the difference from 1991 if you look closely at the fashions and other details, but it still gives you a great idea of what it was like